The greatest act of love in the nativity story was of course Christ choosing to leave his Father’s glory to come and live among us. But I think that Joseph runs him a pretty close second.
When we first meet Joseph in Matthew 1, he has just learned that his beloved fiancée is expecting a baby. He knows it isn’t his, and she doesn’t seem willing or able to give an adequate explanation of who the father is. What are the options?
Perhaps she has been raped or abused by someone and is too afraid of them to say so. But why make up such a strange story instead? What if it wasn’t rape? Perhaps Joseph has been wrong about her all this time and she loves another man.
But there’s another option, one that has been faced by no other man before or since: she could be telling the truth. It’s far-fetched, but her elderly, barren cousin Elizabeth is undeniably pregnant despite the logical impossibility.
Could Mary really be pregnant by the Holy Spirit?
Whatever Joseph’s conclusions were about what had happened, he clearly felt he couldn’t marry her. Yet he demonstrated both his honour and his love for her in his response. The law said that a betrothed virgin who slept with another man should be stoned to death (Deut. 22:23–24). He didn’t want to go to that extreme – even if she had betrayed him, he loved her too much to see her killed or even publicly exposed. Divorcing her quietly seems to me to be the act of a heartbroken man releasing his fiancée in the gentlest way possible.
Such love. Such true justice – law tempered with mercy. Such an honourable man.
And then God assured him through a dream that Mary was still a virgin and Joseph didn’t need to give her up after all. So in another act of courageous love, Joseph went ahead with the marriage. He took this woman – who was still tainted in the world’s eyes – to be his wife, thus legitimising her and giving her security, hope and a future.
It’s no wonder God chose this man to be the earthly father of his Son – his actions are a beautiful picture of the ultimate act of love that Jesus was to perform for us: a bridegroom betrayed (so he thought) by his bride, yet loving her so much he was willing to give up everything for her sake. A man who knew and upheld the law, yet administered it with mercy and compassion. Someone in a position of power who held all the cards, yet humbled himself in order to reconcile his bride to himself and give her hope and a future.
Love seeks the good of the other, even at our own cost. Love makes the other feel safe and secure in a world of conflict and instability.
As John puts it, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16).
What would that look like for you this Christmas? How can we lay down our lives for one another?
How can you put Joseph’s example into practice this Christmas?
- Christmas is a time when emotions can run high and family arguments often bubble very close to the surface. In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry points out that instead of acting rashly, Joseph took time to ponder the situation and to listen, to both Mary and to God. Could your act of costly love simply be taking time to listen and pause before reacting to your family members?
- Many charities have big appeals at Christmas, because they know it is a time when people are most likely to give generously, but the needs in our neighbourhood and our world are still there as January rolls around. Why not make a Christmas resolution to keep the love rolling on into January – and beyond – perhaps by volunteering at a local charity, or remembering to invite the lonely at church round for dinner in the New Year as well as on Christmas Day?